The leaderboard at the halfway point of the PLAYERS Championship is, well, not exactly what you’d call stacked. In fact, at first glance it looks more like the leaderboard you’d expect to see if an opposite-field event were scheduled against The PLAYERS. Not that of golf’s so-called “fifth major.”
How bad is it?
Well, not only were top-ranked favorites like Rory McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Webb Simpson and Tony Finau sent packing, but of those big names who did make the weekend – at least the vast majority, require two swipes (maybe even three) to find them on the pgatour.com’s leaderboard.
In other words, headliners like Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, and Collin Morikawa are not serious chasers – at this point, at least. (Of the three, only Thomas, who closed with a terrific birdie, flashed form that could potentially lead to a weekend charge.)
At the moment, though, the leaderboard includes names such as Doug Ghim (world No. 257), Denny McCarthy (No. 221), Patton Kizzire (No. 207), and Talor Gooch (No. 82), among others (like Tom Hoge, Tyler McCumber, Ryan Armour, etc).
So what happened?
Where did the marquee names go that appeared in all the power rankings and storylines?
One theory is the stars ran out of gas. For some reason, the schedule makers down in Ponte Vedra Beach, decided to string together a World Golf Championship sandwiched between two Invitationals (Genesis, WGC-Workday, Arnold Palmer) – offering three of the biggest purses – as the lead-in to its flagship event, The PLAYERS.
Sure, that’s plausible. If you think 20- and 30-somethings could become drained after four taxing weeks golf (and VIP service) at Riviera, The Concessions, Bay Hill, and TPC Sawgrass.
That’s the one McIlroy went with, anyhow. He called it “ambitious.”
“It was certainly ambitious, especially going Abu Dhabi to the West Coast. But I wanted to play. I felt like we didn’t — I played sparingly sort of from September onwards last year, so I wanted to play quite a bit,” said McIlroy who finished 10 over par, the worst opening two rounds of his career.
“I think these next three weeks coming up it’ll give me some time to — it’ll give me some time to work on some stuff and I can get ready for that place that you have on your facemask [the Masters].”
Another more likely theory is that TPC Sawgrass is less of a test, and more of a crapshoot, where anyone can win. (Hello, Greg Perks.)
The iconic Pete Dye design is notorious for being an equal opportunist when it comes to delivering discomfort on the former alligator swamp turned golf course.
After missing the cut in 1982, the maiden edition at TPC Sawgrass, Jack Nicklaus famously said, “I’ve never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.”
“Gentle” Ben Crenshaw added, “Star Wars golf, designed by Darth Vader.”
Fast forward some 30 years. A young Jordan Spieth is enjoying one of the greatest seasons in modern PGA Tour history, which featured one of golf’s greatest stretches of all time.
In one 15-start span, the then 21-year old Texan won four times, including two majors (Masters, U.S. Open), and added six additional top-5s, including a runner-up at the PGA, and T4 at The Open.
Visually, it looked like this (majors in bold): 1-2-2-1-11-17-MC-2-30-3-1-1-4-10-2.
His only missed-cut during that epic run in that magical summer of 2015?
The PLAYERS. Of course.
On Thursday, after an opening round 70, Spieth said, “I’ve come in here playing poorly, and played poorly, but I’ve come in here after winning the Masters and missed the cut and in that stretch I was playing great golf wherever I was going.”
After missing the cut in that same 2015 edition, Phil Mickelson said, “I can’t believe I actually won here.”
And therein lies the problem. The Tour’s most iconic course is also its most unpredictable.
One year you could have world No. 1 Jason Day hoisting the trophy. Then as defending champion miss the cut and pose with the new champ, world No. 75 Si Woo Kim. Or Rory McIlroy could claim his rightful place as a PLAYERS Champion, only to miss the cut by 10 strokes in the next edition, while world No. 221 Denny McCarthy secures a late tee time on Saturday.
In his autobiography, Dye wrote, “Looking back, I realized that the radical design of the (Stadium) Course was too new for the Tour professionals.
“They had never seen anything like it.”
Nearly 50 years later, they still haven’t.